Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Thanhouser

Note: This is the seventieth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1912 film, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, directed by Lucius Henderson.

I’ve been thinking recently about why so many of my early 1910s favorites are adaptations of incredibly famous literary works. Do I not have the sophistication to expand my understanding to original works or, at the very least, adaptations of lesser known stories? Well, I’m definitely not sophisticated. But frankly, I think the film industry, especially America’s, was going through an identity crisis itself. It just so happens that the short subject adaptations of literary adaptations translate best today because the story is already typically known. At least in my case, my mind filled in all the missing nuance when it came to films like FRANKENSTEIN (1910) and THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1910). And that perfectly describes how I feel about Lucius Henderson’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1912), an enjoyable film with a few strong images given just enough weight by its pedigree to crack my favorites list.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic novella had been adapted for film once before in 1908, but the movie is now lost. So for being the earliest surviving film version of the well-known story, Henderson and studio Thanhouser’s creation isn’t a bad primitive inauguration to a long cinematic tradition of taking on the good versus evil morality tale. STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886) would go on to be adapted for film in 1913, thrice in 1920 (although the only one anyone remembers is the John Barrymore movie), and innumerous times in the years following.

I’ve been imprinted by many a straightforward adaptation, parody, and appearance by the title characters in other media like the awful 1988 Nintendo Entertainment System video game and Alan Moore’s comic series THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (1999-present). Oh, and sure, I’ve read Stevenson’s book in elementary or middle school or something.

What I’m getting at is that my knowledge of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is cursory…except for when it comes to the original, novella-specific plot progression of the story. At that point it’s less than basic, and much of that knowledge had to be refreshed. Many of the plot points now associated with the story (such as Jekyll’s humanitarian efforts, his marriage engagement, and an early look at the transformation) were actually set forth by the 1887 stage adaptation written by Thomas Russell Sullivan. This play eliminated many of the uncertainties of the novella, presenting a linear tale and making Jekyll and Hyde more conventional archetypes of good and evil. This reworking is truly the template many Jekyll and Hyde stories actually follow, and Thanhouser’s film is no exception. English actor Richard Mansfield commissioned the play, and played the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, setting forth another tradition that performers would follow for years, as James Cruze did in his performance for the 1912 film.

Thanhouser Company was a film studio started in 1909 in New Rochelle, New York, a time when essentially all of American film production was headquartered in New York and New Jersey. It would be one of the most prolific studios of the 1910s, producing over one thousand films before it was absorbed into First National Pictures in 1920. Only about 160 of those films survive today. Thanhouser’s most well-known films were literary adaptations and some original works, such as the National Film Registry inductee THE CRY OF THE CHILDREN (1912). I’d put DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE among those standout Thanhouser movies, if only because of its famous and much-adapted source material. Otherwise, Thanhouser is a relatively obscure product of a different world, just before the shifting tides of film production overtook many old-fashioned outfits heading into the 1920s.

Henderson was 51 when he directed DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, joining Thanhouser and the film industry in 1910 after years of stage acting, much like many cinematic recruits of the era. Shortly after making DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, he led a Thanhouser team to Hollywood, but the studio quickly recalled it back to New Rochelle. Henderson left the company and stayed in sunny California, where he worked for Universal as a director until 1917. He acted through the ’20s and joined the fledgling medium of radio until he died in 1947.

But perhaps the most notable personage to come out of the production of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, and Thanhouser in general, was James Cruze. The star in the titular roles, Cruze would act for years before taking his first directing gig in 1919. His full transition into a director would yield an influential and pretty good silent Western, THE COVERED WAGON (1923), as well as some talkies starring some pretty big names. Otherwise, he too isn’t well recognized today. His alcoholism made him physically violent, ruining his first two of three marriages, to actresses Marguerite Snow and Betty Compson, respectively. And it probably had something to do with him dying at the relatively young age of 58 in 1942.

Cruze acted alongside first wife Snow in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (her in a minor, extra role), and they were married the next year. But his costar, in the role of Jekyll’s fiancée, was certainly the most famous of anyone in the cast in her time, and even of Thanhouser’s entire stable of actors. In the beginning of Thanhouser’s darkest days, Florence La Badie’s films were the only bright spot for the struggling studio. Coming from Biograph (where she started in 1909) to Thanhouser in 1911, La Badie was one of the earliest film stars, and rivaled Mary Pickford in top billing from their respective studios, at least. It’s hard to tell today if the two were truly equally renowned, especially since Pickford’s star would shine for so much longer and brighter. La Badie died in 1917 at the age of 29, just a couple months after announcing her leave of Thanhouser, from injuries sustained during a car crash. Her fiance, screenwriter Daniel Carson Goodman, was also in the car at the time. He survived with minor injuries.

These stories of the rich and at-one-time-famous were born in this era, as studios started to realize the value of marketing their stars (and, eventually, directors) without actually naming them, in the mode of the “Biograph Girl” or “Vitagraph Girl.” This crediting disconnect arose in much confusion, as is the case with DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Cruze played both parts, as far as I and legitimate sources seem to be able to tell, but actor Harry Benham claimed to have played Hyde in some scenes. I’m not really able to discern who’s who in certain scenes (even with the aid of the marvelous Blackhawk Films restoration), but regardless, Cruze certainly did a good job.

His performance as Jekyll, with striking white hair, is admirable and relatively restrained early on (OK, for the time), but Cruze’s turn as Hyde is snarling, silly, and over-the-top. It perfectly fits the character and the tradition of his performance. The technique of the transformation, with a fairly subtle substitution splice and fade, is impressive. And Cruze’s makeup and costume as Hyde is really fun and slightly bizarre. The job is not Lon Chaney-level, but Cruze does disappear somewhat into the character. Maybe that’s what makes it harder to tell who played him at any given time, at least from medium-long shots.

Speaking of shots, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE stuck with the stagebound tradition for much of the film, but there are some small, standout deviations. A close up on Hyde’s hand with the poison bottle that would soon end his life is really cool, a striking image on a blank black background that looks like an illustration. And the movie, presumably filmed in the woods of upstate New York, is given some life by realistic and natural outdoor locations. It just doesn’t look much like London.

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE only runs for about 12 minutes, but it still has a commendable, fast pace that other films with similar run times weren’t always able to achieve. It’s a cheese fest, as you would expect from a 1912 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE movie, but it’s well-executed and surprisingly enjoyable today. As mentioned, the high quality of the Blackhawk Films print doesn’t hurt. The movie was a nexus of some kind for different disciplines and generations; Henderson from the stage, Thanhouser for the old-school film studio, and Cruze as a young actor and future groundbreaking filmmaker. That only strengthens its value. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE doesn’t really have the depth, in terms of narrative or aesthetic, that other American short subjects from around the same time were able to achieve, but it’s certainly a standout Thanhouser film and an intriguing relic to close out 1912.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.